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Setauket Harbor Task Force

A few concerned local citizens are taking the health of the Long Island Sound into their own hands.

The 10 locations in Port Jeff Harbor being tested by the Setauket Harbor Task Force. Image from the task force

From May through October, nonprofit Save the Sound, an organization dedicated to the health of the body of water, will continue its Unified Water Study: Long Island Sound Embayment Research program for a second year, testing the water conditions in the Sound’s bays and harbors. The program operates through a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency and using a corps of trained testers, called Sound Sleuths, who volunteered to measure dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll, temperature, salinity and water clarity out on the water at dawn twice monthly during the six-month period. Port Jefferson Harbor will be tested by members of Setauket Harbor Task Force, a nonprofit group founded in 2014 to monitor and advocate for the health of the harbor, who volunteered to serve as Sound Sleuths. Setauket Harbor lies within the greater Port Jefferson Harbor Complex.

Task force members George and Maria Hoffman, Laurie Vetere and volunteer Tom Lyon set out in a roughly 15-foot-long motorboat May 25 at 6:30 a.m. to test 10 randomly preselected specific locations in Port Jeff Harbor, with testing equipment provided by Save the Sound, for the second round of research set to take place this spring and summer. The testing needs to be completed within three hours of sunrise in order to ascertain the most valid data possible, according to George Hoffman.

George Hoffman of Setauket Harbor Task Force tests water chemistry in Port Jefferson Harbor. Photo by Alex Petroski

“I know a lot of people are familiar with water testing, but it’s usually about pathogens,” Hoffman said, which often is examined to determine the safety of swimming or eating shellfish. Testing for water chemistry will reveal more about the health of marine life in the harbor. Hoffman discussed the task force’s plans for testing during a May 6 meeting of the Port Jefferson Harbor advisory commission, a group overseen by the Town of Brookhaven that includes representation from all nearby municipalities and also takes up the responsibility of monitoring harbor health.

“We’re not testing for pathogens,” he said. “This is really about harbor health and chemistry.”

Hoffman said while out on the boat May 25 the group tested each of the 10 sites twice — once about a half a meter off the bottom of the harbor and once a half a meter from the surface of the water, using an instrument called a sonde, which is attached to a long cable and submerged in the water. Hoffman said the instrument costs about $30,000.

“That gives us a pretty good idea of what’s happening in the water column,” he said.

Save the Sound explained the importance of testing the chemistry of bays and harbors within the Sound in a May 16 press release announcing the year 2 testing kickoff.

Laurie Vetere reads data that’s tracked by Maria Hoffman as the Setauket Harbor Task Force tests Port Jeff Harbor’s water chemistry. Photo by Alex Petroski

“More than a decade of federally funded monitoring of the open Sound has documented the destructive impact of nitrogen pollution — including algae blooms, red tides, loss of tidal marshes and fish die-offs — and the incremental improvements brought about by wastewater treatment plant upgrades,” the release said. “Conditions in the bays and harbors — where much of the public comes into contact with the Sound — can be different from conditions in the open waters. More testing on bays and harbors is needed to judge the effect of nitrogen on these waterways and what action is needed to restore them to vibrant life.”

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who also chairs the county’s Environment, Planning and Agriculture committee, said while the county has taken up the fight in finding ways to reduce the amount of nitrogen in Long Island’s waters, having dedicated citizens also keeping an eye is an asset.

“That’s critical, these kind of community efforts to protect water bodies,” she said. “It’s special.”

Results of the study will be published in future editions of Save the Sound’s Long Island Sound Report Card.

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Volunteers at last year's spring cleanup at the Stony Brook railroad station. Photo from Kara Hahn's office

The Greening of 25A Committee and Setauket Harbor Task Force are looking for volunteers.

The Greening of 25A Committee

On April 21, The Greening of 25A Committee will hold its annul spring cleanup at the Stony Brook railroad station. The event is scheduled from 8 to 11 a.m. and will be held rain or shine.

The committee needs volunteers to trim bushes, pick up trash, rake leaves, weed, spread mulch, plant flowers and sweep salt, sand and dirt. Bagels and coffee will be provided by Bagel Express.

For more information, call Legislator Kara Hahn’s (D-Setauket) office at 631-854-1650.

Setauket Harbor Task Force

The Setauket Harbor Task Force is looking for volunteers to help the organization collect water quality data.

Twice each month from May to October, the task force will head out from Port Jefferson Harbor at sunrise to collect data at 10 sites in Port Jefferson Harbor, Setauket Harbor and the Narrows near Conscience Bay.

Each monitoring trip will run about three hours, and volunteers can participate at whatever level they are comfortable. Training and equipment will be provided.

For more information, contact George Hoffman at 631-786-6699 or email the task force at setauketharbortaskforce@gmail.com.

Charles Lefkowitz, right, one of the co-founders of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, presents an award to state Assemblyman Steve Englebright, center, along with George Hoffman, left, another founding member of the task force. Photo by Maria Hoffman

By Anthony Frasca

When he noticed there were issues with the cleanliness of Setauket Harbor, Charles Lefkowitz took matters into his own hands. A founding member of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, Lefkowitz has become an advocate for attention to the harbor.

“Nobody was doing anything and it was just deteriorating until Charlie and a bunch of us got together and said this harbor needs a group of people that will start advocating for its improvement,” said George Hoffman, also a founding member of the task force and a vice president of the Three Village Civic Association.

By forming the task force to call attention to the issues regarding the cleanliness of the harbor, such as roadway runoff, the group was able to procure a $1 million dollar grant in state funding with the help of state Senator John Flanagan (R-East Northport). The task force was also appointed to the Long Island Sound Study, a cooperative multistate effort to improve the water quality of Long Island Sound, in existence since 1985.

“As a founding member of the Setauket Harbor Task Force he has involved himself from the very beginning,” said state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who has attended numerous task force meetings. “He has made time out of his very busy schedule to attend meetings, sometimes in the middle of a workday. He very often offers some of the most sage advice around the table. This is worth noting and saying thank you to Charlie for being part of the individual glue that holds our community together. It speaks to a level of sincerity of love of the community and serves as an example of what it means to be a community leader.”

Once an elected official in the Town of Brookhaven, Lefkowitz continues to involve himself with numerous community issues and advocacy groups in addition to the task force.

“He’s a former town councilman and his involvement in our community and to our town continues,” Englebright said. “If anything he is even more effective now because he is unshackled from politics, and he is able to express his commitment to making our community even better.”

“The subtle side of Charlie is that he is the owner of the Stop & Shop [shopping center] on Route 25A, and I’ve seen him outside pulling weeds out of the flower beds. That’s an indication of the level of detail he’s willing to invest himself in.”

— Steve Englebright

Hoffman said Lefkowitz is vice president of the Three Village Chamber of Commerce and has reinvigorated the chamber by recruiting new people, broadening the chamber’s focus and making it more representative locally.

“Charlie is responsible for reinventing the chamber of commerce,” Hoffman said. “He is a driving force in keeping the group together and focused.”

Lefkowitz was also involved in the community visioning committees for the re-examination of the zoning along the Route 25A corridor in the Three Village area. Drivers along the state road in the vicinity of the Ridgeway Plaza Shopping Center can sometimes see Lefkowitz tending to the flower beds that are planted every spring.

“The subtle side of Charlie is that he is the owner of the Stop & Shop [shopping center] on Route 25A, and I’ve seen him outside pulling weeds out of the flower beds,” Englebright said. “That’s an indication of the level of detail he’s willing to invest himself in.”

Lefkowitz’s influence also extends beyond the Three Village area, according to Hoffman.

“He is a visionary on land use issues especially upper Port Jefferson in terms of its commercial viability,” Hoffman said. “He is also an advocate for electrification of the Port Jefferson branch of the Long Island Rail Road. He focuses on how to make it happen and for the first time we are seeing progress.”

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said she has worked on various projects with Lefkowitz, and he is currently working with the town on implementing aspects of the Port Jefferson Station Commercial Hub Study on some of his properties.

“As a former councilman, chamber vice president, business owner and resident, Charlie has a unique perspective of our community,” Cartright said. “Charlie’s knowledge of real estate and of the history of the Three Village area was a valuable addition to the community forums my office held while working on the Route 25A-Three Village area corridor community visioning report this past year. The award of Person of the Year is well deserved by Charlie, and I look forward to seeing him continue to work with residents on community projects.”

Task force inspires local governments to join forces

Suffolk County Leg. Kara Hahn, Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, Assemblyman Steve Englebright, Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine and Laurie Vetere and George Hoffman of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, sign a memorandum of understanding to protect Setauket Harbor Sept. 23. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

Cooperation between members of government, especially from differing political parties, is a scarce natural resource these days, but don’t tell that to leaders from Brookhaven Town, Suffolk County and New York State. Setauket Harbor and the surrounding area is set to be the beneficiary of that cooperation, as leaders from each of the three municipalities formed an agreement Sept. 23 aiming to protect the historic and natural resources of the harbor.

“The Parties are committed to conserving, improving, protecting and interpreting Setauket Harbor’s historic and natural resources and environment through preservation of historic sties, wildlife areas and viewsheds to enable appropriate uses of harbor resources,” the agreement read in part. It also stated that preventing, abating and controlling water, land and air pollution will be a part of enhancing the health and safety of the people who live within or visit the Setauket Harbor Watershed.

The agreement is a Memorandum of Understanding, meaning it is not law, but rather a set of guiding principles or a moral commitment to follow in the years ahead.

On Sept. 23, North Shore residents enjoyed Setauket Harbor Day. Photo by Alex Petroski

The cosigners of the document, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station); Suffolk County Leg. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket); state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket); and representatives from the Department of Environmental Conservation and Setauket Harbor Task Force left the agreement open-ended in the hopes that other branches of government and organizations will follow suit. The Setauket Harbor Task Force, a three-year-old community organization dedicated to improving water quality and the marine habitat in the harbor, spearheaded the agreement after finding local levels of government share a common interest in protecting and improving the harbor, though they were working concurrently rather than coordinately in some ways.

The memorandum was signed on a town dock off Shore Road in Setauket as part of the third Setauket Harbor Day, an annual event established by the task force in 2015.

The first mission laid out by the document is to develop a natural and cultural resource inventory of the harbor, which will be a springboard toward creating a management plan designed to achieve the preservation goals of Setauket Harbor and the roughly three-square miles surrounding it, known as the watershed, by acquiring lands within it, preserving historic sites, sharing ideas, engaging in open, ongoing discussions and contributing funds.

“You need to have a starting point and a vision for how all these pieces come together, and I think that’s what’s so great about this designation,” said George Hoffman, co-founder of the Setauket Harbor Task Force.

Englebright credited the task force with getting everyone involved and focused on the problems associated with Setauket Harbor, which among others include nitrogen pollution and the presence of coliform bacteria, mostly due to storm water runoff into waterways. The harbor falls within the larger Port Jefferson Harbor Complex, which lets out into the Long Island Sound.

In Sept. 2016, state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) announced he had secured a $1 million grant from the state to be used on enhancing the quality of the harbor’s waters, and the town dock on Shore Road. Englebright thanked Flanagan for his leadership in bringing issues regarding the harbor to light, but a recent annual study completed by Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences still shows the body of water is an area of concern.

“Some of the parcels we’re trying to protect are very vulnerable,” Englebright said. He added although the agreement is only an understanding and not law, he hopes that will change in the future. “What I’m hoping we can do within the context of a completed plan is that we can revisit that question at the state legislative level and write something that may have broad applicability. I think this whole plan has the potential to be a model.”

Romaine said he was excited for the possible benefits to the environment the agreement could bring, but also for the potential economic benefit of a healthier harbor.

On Sept. 23, North Shore residents enjoyed Setauket Harbor Day. Photo by Alex Petroski

“The Harbor has been closed to shell fishing for more than 10 years,” he said. “We’d like to see it open up. We’d like to see some of the contaminants eliminated from this harbor so that it can restore itself. It’s very important to the town. I want to thank Steve because he’s done tremendous work, and we’ve worked together as colleagues for more than 35 years.”

Hahn suggested homes in the watershed could be prime candidates for Suffolk County’s Septic Improvement Program, an initiative that offers funds to homeowners within the county to replace outdated cesspools and septic system, which are major contributors to nitrogen pollution in waterways.

The federal government is not currently on board as part of the agreement, though DEC Regional Director Carrie Meek Gallagher said she expects that to change once a plan is in motion. The significance of the collaboration across party lines and municipality lines in lockstep with a community group like the task force was not lost on Cartright.

“This should be a prime example of how government on all levels should work together with the community,” she said.

Kevin McAllister, the founder of the nonprofit Defend H20, said while the agreement is a positive step, it will be largely symbolic if it is not followed up with action, and more importantly, funding.

“Providing greater funding for a host of projects, land acquisition, more protective zoning, denying shoreline hardening permits — these type actions, individually and collectively will define the resolve as put forth in the MOU,” he said in an email.

Englebright implored members of the public and community groups to not only get on board, but to take the additional step of holding elected officials to the terms of the agreement, including those who come after the incumbent lawmakers.

Stony Brook University professor Christopher Gobler discusses the quality of local bodies of water at a press conference Sept. 12. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr

There’s still something in the water — and it’s not a good kind of something.

Scientists from the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences released an annual report highlighting the concern over the prolonged existence of toxic algae blooms, and a deficiency of oxygen in Long Island waters caused high levels of nitrogen.

Stony Brook Professor Christopher Gobler and several members of the advocacy collective Long Island Clean Water Partnership, a conglomerate of several Long Island environmental groups, revealed the findings of a study done from May to August.

The Roth Pond, a Stony Brook University body of water that plays host to the annual Roth Regatta, is affected by blue-green algae. File photo from Stony Brook University

“In order to make Long Island sustainable and livable, clean water needs to be established,” said Adrienne Esposito, the executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “The challenge has been very great over the last decade … though the problem, unfortunately, is getting a bit worse. Algae blooms and the degradation of water quality across Long Island are serious threats to Long Island’s health.”

On the North Shore, there are several severe cases of hypoxia, or a depletion of dissolved oxygen in water, which is necessary for sea life to survive. Cases were found in Stony Brook Harbor, Northport Bay, Oyster Bay and Hempstead Bay. Measured on a milligram per liter of water scale,any case of hypoxia below two milligrams per liter can be harmful to fish, and almost anything else living on the bottom of the bays.

There were also periodic outbreaks of blue-green algae in Lake Ronkonkoma and Stony Brook University’s Roth Pond. This algae releases a poison harmful to humans and animals, but Gobler said students at the university shouldn’t worry, because he and other scientists at Stony Brook are constantly monitoring the water, especially before the annual Roth Regatta.

“[If nothing is done] the areas could expand — it could get more intense,” Gobler said. “We use a cutoff of three milligrams per liter, which is bad, but of course you can go to zero. An area like Hempstead Harbor went to zero, [Northport and Oyster Bays] went to zero at some points in time. There’s a usual day-night cycle, so it’s at night that the levels get very, very low.”

“We have the problem growing worse, and it is going to get worse before it gets better.”

—Dick Amper

As a result of the possibility of hypoxia expanding, Gobler said he and other scientists have also been monitoring Port Jefferson Harbor and Setauket Harbor.

Though Setauket Harbor is not currently experiencing any problems with hypoxia or algae, the harbor has experienced periods of pathogens, like E. coli, some of which were born from runoff into the harbor, but others might have come from leakage of antiquated cesspools in the area, according to George Hoffman, a trustee of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, which is also a member of the Clean Water Partnership.

Next May the task force hopes to start monitoring directly inside Setauket Harbor. Runoff from lawn fertilizers can also increase the nitrogen levels in the harbor.

“If our problem isn’t hypoxia, we have a problem with pathogens,” Hoffman said in a phone interview. “Prevention is really [Dr. Gobbler’s] goal — to know what is happening and to start taking steps. I think people’s information levels [on the topic] are high in the surface waters that they live by.”

In addition to hypoxia and blue-green algae, some of the water quality problems found in the assessment were brown tides on the South Shore, rust tide in the Peconic bays and paralytic shellfish poisoning on the East End — all of which are also nitrogen level issues that can be  traced back to cesspool sewage and fertilizers.

Port Jefferson Harbor is being monitored due to the speading of hypoxia across local bodies of water. File photo by Alex Petroski

“Make no mistake about it, this is so big that even … still, we have the problem growing worse, and it is going to get worse before it gets better,” said Dick Amper, the director of The Long Island Pine Barrens Society. “What’s the solution to this problem? We have to do more.”

There have been several efforts to help curb water degradation on Long Island. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legislation in April that put $2.5 billion toward clean water protection, improving water infrastructure and building new sewer systems in Smithtown and Kings Park, and adding a rebate program for those upgrading outdated septic systems.

Despite doing more, the repairs will take some time.

“This is going to be a long, long marathon,” said Kevin McDonald, the conservation project director at The Nature Conservancy said.

There is also worry that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — announcing the dumping of dredged materials into Long Island Sound — could compound the problem.

“We have more political funding and will try to implement solutions,” Esposito said. “The problems are getting worse, but the solutions are becoming clearer.”

The monitoring of water in Setauket Harbor was the topic of conversation at a recent Setauket Harbor Task Force meeting. Photo by Elana Glowatz

By Susan Risoli

The Setauket Harbor Task Force gave an update recently to the community about its ongoing efforts to protect Setauket Harbor and the surrounding shoreline. Approximately 70 people came to the task force’s third annual meeting, held at the Setauket Neighborhood House April 19.

“How Clean Is Setauket Harbor?” was the title of a talk given at the meeting. The goal was to give people the opportunity to learn about the health of the harbor and find out what the task force is doing about it.

Setauket residents who noticed the harbor was struggling founded the volunteer, nonprofit organization in 2014, said task force board trustee George Hoffman at the meeting.

Lorne Brousseau discusses coliform levels in the harbor during the meeting. Photo by Beverly Tyler

“Sometimes the water looked cloudy,” Hoffman said. “There were a lot of algae blooms. We knew that nobody was really speaking out for Setauket Harbor.”

Now the task force wants to partner with the organization Save the Sound, Hoffman said, to create a citizen-scientist, water quality monitoring program in Setauket Harbor. Local volunteers, trained by Save the Sound personnel, would start taking water samples next spring and work through October.

Peter Linderoth, water quality program director for Save the Sound, spoke at the meeting about his organization’s Citizen Science Unified Water Testing program to begin this summer in some Long Island Sound harbors and bays. Twice a month, he said, volunteers will record precipitation data; look at water clarity, seaweed and eelgrass; and track levels of dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll, salinity and temperature.

The Setauket program would be similar, Hoffman said in a recent phone interview. He said the cost of training volunteers would be covered by the Long Island Sound Funders Collaborative, a group of funding organizations that pool their resources to help protect the Sound. The water quality monitoring equipment will be provided through a grant Save the Sound obtained from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Hoffman said.

About a dozen volunteers have already signed up to monitor water quality in Setauket Harbor, and the task force is looking for more, Hoffman said.

The April task force meeting also addressed a DNA analysis of pathogens in Setauket Harbor. The harbor is closed to shell fishing due to high numbers of disease-causing bacteria associated with human and animal waste.

Lorne Brousseau, marine director for Cornell Cooperative Extension, said the six-week study — commissioned by Brookhaven Town and conducted last fall — revealed that “birds seemed to have the biggest impact” on numbers of coliform in the water, with Canada geese being the worst offenders. The second highest source, Brousseau said, was “human-derived fecal coliform.”

“Where that came from, we’re not sure,” he said. “It could be boat discharge or septic systems.”

Brousseau also said there was a “low proportion of domestic animal fecal coliform – a few dogs and one horse.”

A man in the audience asked if it were possible to determine what percentage each source contributed to the total fecal coliform in the harbor. Brousseau said many more samples, taken from the water many more times, would have to be obtained to come up with percentages.

“It’s cost-prohibitive and time-prohibitive,” he said.

Brousseau also said fecal coliform in Setauket Harbor increases, and water quality deteriorates, after a rainfall.

“After it rains, the numbers triple, quadruple, sometimes more,” he said.

Task force chairperson Laurie Vetere also spoke at the meeting. She said funds from a $1 million state grant to fund water quality improvement in Setauket Harbor and its watershed are expected to become available soon. The grant, announced last fall, was secured for Brookhaven Town by Senator John Flanagan (R-East Northport), working with Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket.)

Peter Linderoth explains volunteers’ roles in testing water quality. Photo by Beverly Tyler

The town will use the funds to remove accumulated silt at the entrance to the harbor, renovate the town dock on Shore Road, and continue managing storm water, Vetere said. The grant “was a huge deal, and we’re hoping that money comes in sooner rather than later,” she said. She also said Brookhaven Town employees have recently been cleaning brush and debris from the Setauket pond park next to the Se-Port Deli.

Vetere said in a recent phone interview that the DNA pathogen analysis was an important source of baseline data.

“Even in dry weather, there have been very high levels of bacteria in the harbor,” she said. “We’re not really sure where that’s coming from, but we’re going to be addressing it.”

Vetere also said the Setauket Harbor Task Force will seek ways to work with Suffolk County on its new Septic Improvement Program, a grant and loan program to help homeowners replace outdated septic tanks with nitrogen-reducing septic systems.

Vetere said storm water runoff is an issue for Setauket Harbor. Last November, she said, five task force members piled into a car and drove around the harbor “and just watched how storm water was coming down the streets.” The task force is exploring if it would be effective for homeowners around the harbor to plant passive rain gardens, Vetere said, because the gardens soak up storm water and absorb pollutants.

The Setauket Harbor Task Force will hold its annual Harbor Day — environmental exhibits, kayaking and paddleboard lessons, entertainment and other activities — Sept. 23 at the town dock on Shore Road.

For more information about the Setauket Harbor Task Force and future meetings, call 631-786-6699.

Local politicians and members of the Setauket Harbor Task Force announce a state grant that will improve water quality. From left, Setauket Harbor Task Force Chairwoman Laurie Vetere, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine, Setauket Harbor Task Force Co-founder George Hoffman and state Sen. John Flanagan. Photo by Alex Petroski

Advocates for the health of the Setauket Harbor were given an essential resource to aid in efforts to improve water quality in the North Shore port this week.

State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) announced he secured a $1 million grant from New York State for Brookhaven Town at a press conference Sept. 20 to be used to improve water quality in the harbor.

The announcement came on the heels of a recent water quality study of Setauket Harbor done by Cornell Cooperative Extension and commissioned by Brookhaven, which turned up troubling results. Setauket Harbor is part of the larger Port Jefferson Harbor complex.

“The recent water quality report commissioned by Brookhaven pointed out that Setauket Harbor has significant water quality issues caused mainly by road runoff from rain water flooding into the harbor after storms,” Laurie Vetere, chairwoman for Setauket Harbor Task Force, a volunteer group, said during the press conference.

“It’s clear that the harbor has some serious challenges.”

— George Hoffman

The grant will fund three projects relating to the harbor.

Half of the $1 million will go toward improvements to the dock. Forty percent will be used on storm water infrastructure improvements and the remaining $100,000 will be used to remove silt that has accumulated in the harbor and its water sources.

Nitrogen pollution and coliform bacteria have plagued Setauket Harbor in recent years.

“I don’t think we were surprised — the harbor has been struggling for years,” George Hoffman of the Setauket Harbor Task Force said in an email. “It has been closed to shell fishing for more than a decade and the main creek leading to the harbor is filled with sediment and not stopping contaminants in storm water from flowing into the harbor … it’s clear that the harbor has some serious challenges.”

Restrictions were placed on shell fishing in other Long Island waterways by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in 2015 because of water quality concerns.

Flanagan said the grant should be a step in the right direction to improve the harbor’s waters.

“Long Islanders are blessed with access to magnificent waterways like Setauket Harbor,” he said during the press conference. “That’s why it is important that all levels of government work together to preserve and protect these fragile ecosystems. This state funding will help support critical improvement projects to restore and revitalize this beautiful natural resource and it is my pleasure to partner with [Brookhaven Town Supervisor] Ed Romaine, the Town of Brookhaven and Setauket Harbor Task Force to help bring this project to reality.”

Flanagan, who is up for reelection in November, said in an interview following the press conference that environmental issues are an “A-1 priority” to his constituents.

“They deeply care about the environment,” he said. “I have a lot of coastal property in the district I’m fortunate enough to represent … it’s all important stuff.”

Romaine (R) has been an advocate for legislation to improve Long Island’s water quality for decades. In June, the town approved a law proposed by Romaine that prohibits structures being built within 500 feet of any Long Island waters from having cesspools or septic systems.

“I thank Sen. Flanagan for his strong advocacy on behalf of the Town to help us get started on improving the water quality in Setauket Harbor and the watershed that surrounds it,” Romaine said. “By acting now, I believe we can prevent further contamination, reverse the damage that has already been done and begin to restore this beautiful natural resource back to a healthy and environmentally sound waterway.”

Algae built up on a lake where birds and other marina life inhabit. File photo

By Rebecca Anzel

Long Island’s economic prosperity and quality of life are at risk from an unlikely source, but both the Suffolk County and Town of Brookhaven governments are taking steps to combat the issue.

Bodies of water in the county face nitrogen pollution, which leads to harmful algae blooms and a decrease in shellfish population, among other environmental defects. Critically, nitrogen seeps into the Island’s groundwater, which is the region’s only source of drinking water.

Fishing, tourism and boating are billion-dollar industries in Suffolk County — approximately 60 percent of the Island’s economy is reliant on clean water. County property values are also tied to water clarity, according to a Stony Brook University report.

Nitrogen enters ground and surface water from various sources of runoff, such as landscaping, agriculture and pet waste. But the largest contributor of nitrogen pollution is failing septic systems, which County Executive Steve Bellone (D) designated as “public water enemy No. 1.”

Elected officials and environmental advocates gathered at the home of Jim and Donna Minei, recipients of a Innovative and Alternative Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems through the Suffolk County Septic Demonstration Pilot Program. Photo from Steve Bellone's office
Elected officials and environmental advocates gathered at the home of Jim and Donna Minei, recipients of a Innovative and Alternative Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems through the Suffolk County Septic Demonstration Pilot Program. Photo from Steve Bellone’s office

Which is why Bellone signed into law last month a resolution that amended Suffolk County’s sanitary code to help protect the county’s aquifer and surface water by improving wastewater treatment technologies to combat nitrogen pollution as part of the county’s Reclaim Our Water initiative.

“It doesn’t help our tourism industry, our quality of life or our ecosystems,” county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said of issues with the Island’s water. “Tackling the nitrogen problem, while not a sexy issue, is a very important one.” Hahn is chairwoman of the county’s Environment, Planning & Agriculture Committee.

Town and county officials are tackling the problem by utilizing what Hahn called a “multipronged approach.” Brookhaven is working to track any issues with outfalls, where drains and sewers empty into local waters, and Suffolk County is employing alternative septic systems.

Municipalities like Brookhaven are required by New York State to inspect each point where waste systems empty into a body of water and create a map of their location. It is part of a Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit because, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, storm sewers collect pollutants like bacteria, motor oil, fertilizer, heavy metals and litter, and deposit them directly into bodies of water.

In addition to conducting the inspections of outfalls necessary to comply with the MS4 permit, the Town of Brookhaven conducts a DNA analysis of any outfall that has indications of impacting water quality. Since 2007, Brookhaven has spent more than $880,000 on this state requirement, Veronica King, the town’s stormwater manager, said.

“You want to put your resources where it makes the most sense,” she said. “Instead of dumping millions of dollars into structural retrofits that don’t address the true problem, the DNA analysis helps us to prioritize and make educated and cost-effective decisions.”

Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said Brookhaven contracts with Cornell Cooperative Extension because it maintains a DNA “library” of Long Island wildlife, which it uses to identify the source of any pathogens in collected stormwater. For instance, if the DNA tests conclude they came from pets, Brookhaven might conduct an educational campaign to remind residents to clean up after their furry friends. If the pathogens come from a human source, there might be an issue with a septic system.

“This type of analysis could prove of great importance because any patterns identified as a result of this study can help determine what next steps can be taken to improve water quality where necessary,” Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said.

Brookhaven has applied for a state grant to help pay for these DNA tests and outfall inspections for the first time this year, because, King said, this is the first time New York State has offered a grant to cover the work.

The DNA tests are important, Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said, because they help to identify ways to decrease the amount of nitrogen seeping into groundwater.

“The amount of nitrogen in the Magothy aquifer layer has increased over 200 percent in 13 years,” he said of one of the sub-layers that is most commonly tapped into in Suffolk, although not the deepest in the aquifer. “Cleaning up our waterways is not going to be done overnight — this is going to take a long time — but the waterways did not become polluted overnight.”

Suffolk County launched its Septic Demonstration Program to install cesspool alternative systems in 2014, called Innovative and Alternative Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems (known as I/A OWTS), on the property of participants. Manufacturers of the technology donated the systems and installed them at no cost to the homeowner.

The county’s goal in testing these alternative systems is to lower the levels of nitrogen seeping into groundwater. According to a June 2016 Stony Brook University report, “the approximately 360,000 septic tank/leaching systems and cesspools that serve 74 percent of homes across Suffolk County have caused the concentrations of nitrogen in groundwater to rise by 50 percent since 1985.”

More than 10,000 of the nitrogen-reducing systems are installed in New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts and Rhode Island — all areas with similar environmental concerns to Suffolk County — according to the county executive’s office. County employees met with officials from these states to help shape its program.

“Tackling the nitrogen problem, while not a sexy issue, is a very important one.”

—Kara Hahn

The I/A OWTS installations worked out so well during a demonstration program that on July 26, the county passed a resolution to allow the Department of Health Services to regulate their use.

Typical cesspools are estimated to cost between $5,000 and $7,000 to install. The low nitrogen systems cost between $12,000 and $20,000, Hahn said. She added that as more areas facing similar environmental concerns require lower nitrogen standards and, as the technology improves, the cost of cesspool alternatives will go down.

Until then, Hahn said county officials have been discussing the possibility of subsidizing the cost of installing the I/A OWTS. It might begin requiring new homes to install low-nitrogen systems instead of traditional cesspools. Or, upon an old system’s failure, it might require an I/A OWTS be installed.

“We hope to eventually be able to help in some way,” she said.

County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said she hopes local businesses begin producing the alternative systems that the county determines best work for the area since it would “keep the economic dollar here” and provide jobs.

In January, Brookhaven will be the first town, Romaine said, that will begin mandating new constructions within 500 feet of any waterway to install an alternative wastewater treatment system.

“I think alternative systems work,” he said. “In many ways, even though we’re a local government, we are on the cutting edge of clean water technologies.”

Both the initiatives by Brookhaven and Suffolk County “go hand and glove,” George Hoffman, of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, said. Many of Suffolk’s harbors and bays are struggling due to stormwater and nitrogen pollution, including Great South Bay, Lake Ronkonkoma, Northport Harbor, Forge River, Port Jefferson Harbor, Mount Sinai Harbor and Peconic River/Peconic Bay.

“Living on an island on top of our water supply and with thousands of homes along the shores of our harbors and bays, it never made sense to allow cesspools to proliferate,” he said.

The success of the initiatives, though, depends on residents.

“The public needs to be always recognizing that whatever we do on land here on Long Island and in Suffolk County affects not only the drinking water beneath us but the quality of our bays and waterways, streams and rivers all around us,” Hahn said. “It’s critically important that folks have that understanding. Everything we do on land affects our water here on the Island.”

Setauket Harbor Day is an annual event on the North Shore. Photo by Susan Risoli

By Susan Risoli

The Setauket Harbor Task Force will host its second annual Harbor Day for the community, on Saturday, June 18, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The free event will take place on Shore Road, at the Setauket Harbor dock and beach. This year’s theme is “celebrate the magic of the natural harbor.”

Task Force trustee George Hoffman said the all-volunteer, not-for-profit group works for cleaner water in the harbor. The organization grew out of shared concerns that the area was starting to degrade, Hoffman said, and because local people thought “it looked like the harbor was struggling.”

There will be free boat rides every half-hour as part of the event, Hoffman said. Visitors will be invited to experience touch tanks full of clams, hermit crabs and snails.

There will be kayak exhibits, talks about shoreline vegetation and marine animals and lessons on how to render the local environment with watercolors. Live music and food will be on hand.

The past year has been a busy one for the Setauket Harbor Task Force, Hoffman said, and now “we’ve become the go-to group for information about the water quality and marine environment in Setauket.” Members speak at meetings of local civic organizations, “telling people things they can do to keep the harbor clean.” The Task Force has been working with Brookhaven Town to reduce stormwater runoff from surrounding roads into the harbor, he said.

Hoffman said the Task Force applied in May, together with the town, for a $35,000 federal grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to continue the harbor cleanup. The funds would also be used to make the water and its shoreline more accessible for recreational use. Hoffman said word will come in August as to whether or not the grant application is approved. “We know the town is strapped for resources,” Hoffman said. “So we try to come up with some resources, by partnering with them on grants.” The Task Force works closely with Brookhaven Town, Hoffman said, and “[Town] Supervisor Ed Romaine and Councilwoman Valerie Cartwright are partners with us.”

The Task Force plans to work with the town, Hoffman said, to unclog Setauket Pond, the body of water next to the Se-Port Deli on Route 25A, so that the pond can do a better job of straining pollutants out of stormwater runoff. “That drainage basin is so important to the health of the harbor,” he said. “The town of Brookhaven will dredge the pond and clean it, so that it can catch heavy metals and prevent them from going into the harbor.” And when invasive vegetation and dead brush is cleared from the pond, it will help make the harbor more visible to passers-by, Hoffman said.

In the past year, the Setauket Harbor Task Force was registered as a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization, and was appointed to the Long Island Sound Study, an environmental research and restoration collaboration between the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the states of New York and Connecticut and concerned citizens.

A view of Setauket Harbor. The Setauket Harbor Task Force works to preserve this local gem. File photo

By Phil Corso

They’ve covered a lot of ground — and water — in their first year, but members of the Setauket Harbor Task Force are only getting started.

The all-volunteer Setauket Harbor Task Force, led by residents and cofounders Laurie Vetere and George Hoffman, held its first general meeting on Oct. 29, 2014, and meetings have grown to host nearly 100 residents. Since the first meeting, members of the group have become a known force for North Shore environmentalism, and their efforts have washed upon the shores of civic leaders, elected officials and beyond. The group has spent the past year studying the harbor, influencing the public debate surrounding it and garnering public support for its preservation and sustainability.

For their contributions to the North Shore’s environmental discussion, members of the Setauket Harbor Task Force have been named 2015 Times Beacon Record Newspapers People of the Year.

On the ground level, civic members in the Setauket and Stony Brook communities have become big fans of the Setauket Harbor Task Force and have continuously teamed up with the group to help promote its mission of preserving the communities’ waterways. Shawn Nuzzo, president of the Civic Association of the Setaukets and Stony Brook, said he stood behind the Task Force’s work with hopes that it could help bring back a strong and vibrant Long Island economy based on the sustainable harvesting of coastal shorelines.

“We have a sordid and shameful history of polluting our Long Island waterways,” Nuzzo said. “For years, scientists and environmentalists have been warning of the harmful effects of nitrogen and other contaminants in our water. But it is only relatively recently that the politicians have begun discussing remediating the situation, thanks in part to advocacy groups like the Setauket Harbor Task Force.”

The Task Force has been hosting regular walking tours of the harbor and its surrounding environmental beauties with hopes of reminding the community just how important it is to maintain.

Some of the group’s key concerns have included making sure the town pays attention to the road runoff retention basin that forms near the inlet at Setauket Harbor and maintaining park property just to the west of the area’s footbridge.

The Task Force also launched its first Setauket Harbor Day back in September — a free event held at the Shore Road dock, established to inspire the community to join the Force in its efforts to clean and preserve the harbor.

Since the group’s inception, members have been working hand-in-hand with elected officials from various levels of government, and so far their messages have been heard loud and clear.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) has been a consistent voice in the North Shore’s environmental discussion, having held previous positions as a geologist and biologist before becoming a public servant. And with his expertise, Englebright referred to the Setauket Harbor Task Force as an epicenter of community pride that has made a tremendous impact on the North Shore.

“We have a sense of purpose now to work between our civic community and the town and the state — it’s just wonderful,” he said. “I guess everybody would hope that government would do all of this on its own, but the additional attention and focus being brought by citizens who have taken this initiative on is just terrific. So my sense is that by establishing the Setauket Harbor Task Force, and providing a forum where issues that relate to the overall health of the ecosystem in our harbor can be discussed, we have a matter of focus.”

The group has received support from Brookhaven officials as well. Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said the Task Force represents the best of Brookhaven.

“These are citizens coming together and recognizing a common problem and looking to make a positive difference,” Romaine said. “We are prepared to spend money to enact some of the things they are trying to achieve. This is a commitment and what helps us is that we have partners on the local level — people who step up to the plate.”

Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) echoed those sentiments after spending the year working closely with the Task Force.

“The formation of the Setauket Harbor Task Force is a significant step in addressing some of the environmental concerns in the area,” she said. “It is a vehicle for the community to work together to assist in preserving our harbor and improving our water quality. I thank the members of the Task Force for all of their hard work to bring awareness of the needs of the Harbor to the community. I had the privilege of attending the first Setauket Harbor Day this past summer, which I believe was a success, as it was both entertaining and educational.”

Looking ahead, Englebright said he’d hope to see the group follow through in working with the Town of Brookhaven to see what kinds of progress can be achieved in addressing road runoff issues and restoring the ecological balance of some of the most disrupted areas along the harbor.

“The fact that the town is planning to dredge the basin is, in part, a response to the initiative of local citizens,” Englebright said. “That partnership is really all too rare, and it’s ideally what government should be doing. I hope the town continues to realize that this is a wonderful and promising partnership.”

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